“Your father and I were lovers,” the woman tossed lightly over her shoulder, standing at the grave.
Amy looked down at the grave marker, thinking she had remembered incorrectly and come to the wrong plot. The newly carved teak plaque read: “John Harrington, Beloved Husband and Father.” Amy’s arm shot out, elbow locked, pointing like a kid.
The woman turned her head. She wore a black, calf-length fur coat, matching hat and high-heeled black boots. Her skin was pink, unlined, and age defying. Dazzling ice-blue eyes were accented by heavy black liner along the upper eyelids. Her lipstick looks the color of cabernet, Amy thought.
“You didn’t know?” she said, her voice a monotone. Amy wondered if her lack of intonation was intentional or if it simply reflected a personality that was rather dull. Well, that would be the antithesis of mom, she thought.
The woman held red roses that looked excessively melodramatic against the midday snow. The bouquet was poised somewhat away from her body and Amy wondered if she was confused about whether to place it down on the grave marker, here, now, in front of her lover’s ignorant daughter, or whether to abandon the idea altogether. Amy laughed, a singular note, too loud, too sharp.
“You and my father?” she asked, yanking at her scarf even as it tightened around her neck.“You and my father,” she said again, stating it, waiting for her brain and comprehension to work in tandem.
She gave up on the damn scarf and flung her hands to her sides. “My name is Amy.”
“I know,” the woman said. “My name is Mrs. Landry.”
Mrs. Landry, Amy thought. Really, no first name? Not even for your lover’s daughter? Her mind sneered, adjusted, scrambled, and fumbled.
“My father worked for you?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Landry said, her voice suddenly softer, almost kind, this side of gentle. “Just the once,” Mrs. Landry continued and ended.
Amy stamped her feet, trying to beat off the pinpricks from wearing too-light boots and standing too still in several inches of snow. She was also trying to rein in her anger, increasingly annoyed by this woman’s clipped words, a body half-turned away.
“I assume you have more you could say than that.”
Mrs. Landry flicked a look towards her that was…what? Derision? Contempt? Surprise? She finally spoke, once again devoid of inflection. “My family is seated in Waveny: the Gritards. Your father supervised an addition at my husband’s family home in Actol nine years ago.”
Do I say something here, Amy wondered, but her larynx felt caught in a vice, her tongue limp and heavy in her mouth.
Mrs. Landry’s voice emerged again, quietly, rising this time as though in awe. “Your father was exemplary,” she said. Then her body staggered (very slightly) and her gloved-hand clamped (very swiftly) over her mouth, trying to conceal a sob.
Amy gave one more tug and her scarf fluttered down onto the snow. “My father,” she said, distractedly.
Mrs. Landry lowered her hand and roughly brushed her coat of nonexistent snow. “Yes,” she said as she straightened her shoulders and clasped her hands in front of her.
“You knew him as a father,” she continued. “From my experience, fathers don’t reveal very much. We hardly ever really know our fathers.”
Amy’s adrenalin and disbelief spewed words as if they were toxins. “And mothers? Can I go have a chat with your children and they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, Mom and us, we’re tight; we know all about it’?”
Mrs. Landry adjusted her gloves. “No, you would not. I never had children.”
“Well, how about the husband then? Your husband. A best girlfriend? The local gardening club? How honest have you really been, Mrs. Landry?”
“I was honest with your father, who was the most important presence in my life. Now watch your tone.”
Amy lowered her eyes, feeling like the six-year-old caught with pee running down her leg because she just couldn’t hold it any longer; shamed in front of her father, friends, her soccer team and the opposing Wildcats as the referee blew his whistle and stopped the game to allow for a time-out and a sub. She felt slightly nauseous with the memory. Why did I remember that, Amy thought, that doesn’t have anything to…
“I’m getting quite chilly,” Mrs. Landry said. “Would you walk me back to my car?”
Amy squashed her thoughts, pushing her gloved hands into the too-small pockets of her coat. Her footsteps crunched clearly, breaking through the top layer of ice to the powdery snow beneath.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
All the streets were familiar, more than familiar. Even though Los Angeles had been Amy’s home for over twenty years, she didn’t need to think twice driving around Patterson, Illinois, an hour and a half southwest of Chicago. Her hands and long-held memory navigated past Lally Tanner’s cornfields, Belliard’s persimmon farm, and Mattle Elementary. But the Cummings’ peach orchards were gone, the space now containing clods of oversized houses on small quarter-acre lots with sugar-sweet names like Happy Trails Lane and Cherry Blossom Circle. The homes look distressed, Amy thought, as though jostling for more room, needing to spread out and breathe. She rolled her shoulder, trying to relieve a knot.
Closer to town, the street names became known: Engles Perry Lane, Merchant’s Valley Road, and Zane River Drive. Big names for small, stamped-out cookie-cutter homes built half a century earlier for farm workers and lower management. As she drove past Mrs. O’Connell’s place, she saw the shedding paint, crooked shutters, and snow banks creeping up to the rusted front-screened door with no footprints in sight. I have to go visit while I’m here, Amy thought. I’ll bring a shovel.
As she turned to drive along the river, her mind reluctantly returned to another reality. The new reality. The Mrs.-Landry-and-her-father reality. The woman had spoken of the affair as though dictating the grocery list to her housekeeper or instructing her gardener about which rose bushes to prune. She’d offered no apologies. Amy couldn’t even remember how they’d parted, what words were uttered to dance around the disquiet. It took twenty minutes of aimless driving simply to feel reconnected to her own body.
Christmas had always started with a six-pack and a gin on the rocks; Amy had the off-color snapshot to prove it. Her mother leaned against the open doorway between the living and dining rooms, her floral robe tied tightly around her still-shapely waist, her hair model-messy, her face simple with a touch of mascara and glossed lips despite the 7 a.m. hour. Her arms were tightly crossed, revealing immaculately polished nails, the upper hand cradling her drink. She looked lovely, even with the blank gaze in her eyes and the settledness of her lips.
Amy’s father reclined in his chair, one arm behind his head for a view of the ruckus, the other hand wrapped around a beer. The rest of the cans sat on ice in a cooler on the floor next to him. Their Christmas tree was off to the left of the picture, its beauty obscured by excessive silver tinsel that crowded the lights and banished the decorations to a backup role. The three boys, Lance, Tom, and Joey, huddled together as usual, barefoot despite the cold, wearing mismatched pajamas, their hair matted and twisted in every direction. Six wiggly blurs that were actually arms rushed to shred open their gifts. Joelle, the baby of the family, her eyes glowing, toddled towards her father to show off her new doll, cradling it in her arms. Deborah, the eldest, could not be seen in the picture. She was usually perched on the couch, off in her own world, quite content to remain removed, grumbling when she was delegated to snap the obligatory Christmas photo.
Amy could be seen on the far left of the frame, sitting cross-legged, leaning slightly into the tree, the tinsel mixing with strands of her hair, her present still unwrapped. She hated to tear the paper, so she picked at the tape gently. She’d flatten and smooth out the holiday wrapping, then carefully fold and place it to the side knowing that later she’d add it to the collection she kept underneath her mattress.
In a matter of minutes, with everyone else’s presents opened, Charlene would order the room at large to clean up the mess, then turn and disappear to throw cereal into bowls. Christmas was over for the day, except for the formality of a dinner that only felt different because of the early hour and the matching Christmas tablecloth and napkins. Deborah would then be put in charge while John and Charlene would go and change for the annual Christmas party at the Burke’s, who lived at the end of the block. They were a childless couple who opened their home to people in the same situation, or to those who were still single, or away from their families. Since Deborah had turned nine, John and Charlene had never missed it.
During her years as a rebellious teenager, Deborah waited the appropriate half hour after her parents’ departure before escaping herself, eliciting with her fiercest glare a swear from one and all not to leave the premises. The boys concurred, easily fixating on their new armies or trucks or assembly sets, oblivious to anyone else. Amy would lead Joelle into the living room, plug the Christmas lights back in and cuddle up with her on the couch. She played dolls until she couldn’t bear it another second, then distracted Joelle by suggesting treats of hot chocolate and popcorn. The smell drew the boys, the quiet air disrupted by their bounding down the stairs, yelling and slamming through the swinging door from the hallway into the kitchen. “Hey, we want some!”
Amy had known to make triple the amount and quickly filled their hands and arms with mugs and bowls so they’d disappear as fast as they had arrived.
Joelle would trail Amy dutifully back into the living room where they replanted themselves onto the couch and ate until their stomachs were full. Amy read aloud from their handful of Christmas books until she felt Joelle’s head get heavy on her shoulder. Her mouth dry from reading, thirsty from the salted popcorn and the too-sweet chocolate, and with Joelle’s slumbering weight making her shoulder ache, Amy would shift a little, wanting to stand up and get some water.
She didn’t move.
She never moved.
Amy hadn’t returned this last Christmas, as she’d had a new production job starting on the twenty-sixth. She wasn’t unhappy about the excuse. She tried to return only every other year, even if she didn’t have other plans or invitations.
Deborah, Lance, Tom, and Joey had produced a total of eleven kids whom Amy could hardly keep straight, and Christmas had become a round robin between their houses. Being single with no family of her own to corral and rein in, to keep track of or shove into the limelight, Amy decided her role was to obediently follow already laid plans, help with already divided upon menus, and diminish her bank account, giving gifts that brought shrieks and smiles.
She tried to align her visits for when the youngest sibling, Joelle, would also be coming (although from the other coast, Boston) with her longtime, live-in boyfriend in tow. The three of them would huddle in the corner surveying the family, casting comments, imposing judgments in hushed tones, laughing, relieved that the chaos wasn’t theirs. Amy couldn’t quite smother the envy she felt when the two of them would break away for a walk together arm in arm, time alone, peace and quiet. Amy would return to the festivities, a smile on her face, a laugh at the ready, feeling slightly out of place.
She had missed Thanksgiving this past year too. Halloween as well, which Amy had loved when the nieces and nephews were younger and fewer to count. She’d help plan, cut, sew and create costumes. She applied makeup, fixed last-minute breakage, played the comedian to dry any tears. She smiled as their little legs ran as fast as possible from door to door, a mangled chorus shouting “Trick or Treat!” followed by their mothers’ reminder to say “Thank you.” They squealed greeting friends, compared costumes and opened pillowcases to display their loot. Amy adored the press of little Sophie’s head tucking into her neck as she carried her home, too tired to walk. Those moments seemed precious, too precious to be over.
Amy had slipped in for a four-day weekend this last September, as she knew the kids would be back in school. Family life became more regimented at that time of year, so she could come back and follow her own itinerary, dropping in to see people when she desired—for a quick beer or to stay for dinner; to grab a coffee with Lauren, Lance’s wife; to take Sophie out for a basket-full of chili fries (a shared weakness); or to pick up Seamus and take him to football practice. They often stopped on the way home to steal apples off old McEnery’s trees, eating them on the crumbling, stone wall as she plied him with questions about high school. They’d tie two dollars around a branch and make a mad dash to the car, laughing as if they’d gotten away with something.
Four days was usually Amy’s maximum. Swoop in, race out. Before it ached too much seeing her brothers and sister and their families seemingly content with their choices, progress, routines, and successes. To leave before Amy cracked at seeing sweet Lauren’s perfectly happy smile one more time.
When she needed a dose of unvarnished reality, she would drive the hour to Deborah’s and stay the night. She admired how Deb could unleash on her husband and rein hellfire down on the kids one moment, and then hug and kiss them the next. Amy wondered how she did that. Was it an ability you acquired when you loved and accepted shortcomings in yourself and those around you? Did love allow for that? Or was it an innate ability that Amy simply didn’t possess? The few relationships that dotted her history were more patches of infatuation that sank into numbing monotony. Eventually both parties would slink away from the other disappointed, but (supposedly) not devastated.
Was there such a thing as accumulated devastation? Minor disappointments adding up over the years to a sudden, massive sense of failure and loss? Was this proof that Amy simply hadn’t met the right man or proof that she didn’t have the successful relationship gene? Was she awaiting her destiny and fate, or missing opportunities presented to her? Was she in danger of running out of options? All she knew was that she had not wanted what her parents had. Her fear of that made any relationship she was in devolve into just that. It’s what she expected; it’s what she got.
Was it what her father had expected until he met Mrs. Landry? Had he figured he’d done his time, fulfilled his familial duties and now this affair was a gift to himself? Knowing her mother, Amy couldn’t fault him for that. She was thankful (though the thought squirmed inside her) that her father had found someone and had experienced a time of joy.
Yet, it was difficult to look back and realize that he had held a secret, a life unknown to any of them. He had seemed the same; no major personality changes, no sudden bounce in his step or dragging of it either. Though, as Mrs. Landry so pointedly stated, what did one know of one’s father?
Amy had made two sack lunches during that trip and searched out her father at the Martin’s place. The back lawn was torn up for the addition of a screened-in porch. He set down his hammer when he glimpsed her coming around the house, leaving his group of guys as they gathered around their lunch pails or jumped into their trucks, heading for a drive-thru. He picked his way through loose boards and around sawhorses, leaving boot prints in the soft mud.
“Coming to check on the old man?” he said in his gruff, low voice, though his lips smiled their irregular smile.
Amy smiled at his smile. “I figured lunch with your daughter al fresco would be just what you were hoping for.”
Her father flashed his version of a smile again and cocked his head towards an outdoor table and chairs that had been set aside.
Their conversation hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary. Minutes of silence that weren’t uncomfortable. He’d periodically insert one of his traditional questions about her job and Los Angeles. “California still working for you, is it?”
Amy wondered if he asked because he was hoping she’d come home, wanting her closer, or he wanted to be assured, happy she’d gotten away. Maybe it was simply curiosity, as he had never traveled so far west. Amy was one of six children. Too many to truly know, especially for a man not naturally talkative or effusive. Maybe he only wanted to know that she was doing okay; he didn’t need the details. Amy often wanted to provide them and to receive some fatherly advice, thoughts and insights in return, but that had never been his way. She never pushed. She didn’t want to disrupt the easiness they shared, even if it was an easiness at arm’s length.
Charlene sat at the dining room table with candles around her as though she were the object of a shrine. Or so she wished. She sat with the news of John’s love affair like weights hanging off every single one of her joints. She felt so heavy she was motionless, even unable to light a cigarette; she simply watched the flickers of the flames around her.
He adored someone, she thought. He’d found love and comfort in other arms, with other lips, looking into another’s eyes. Her gut twisted and clenched.
“Harrington!” Charlene had blindly (and often) shouted from behind the screened backdoor. She knew he had long finished mowing the grass and was probably slurping his second beer splayed out in his ratty patio chair dragged behind the garage.
John Harrington. Charlene remembered the day she first heard that name her sophomore year in high school, a name she felt came right out of a Cary Grant and Grace Kelly movie. She found out who he was and unabashedly flirted with him until he blushed so much his red skin turned blotchy-white and he asked her out to a movie and a soda. She forced herself to play hard to get in a soft come-and-get-me way. She could hardly restrain herself. When she determined the appropriate amount of time had elapsed so he wouldn’t brand her a naughty girl, she pounced. She loved to run her hands through his mass of golden waves, whispering his surname, Harrington, while he more and more confidently kissed her neck and felt her up. Over the succeeding decades, the only way she spoke his name was in a high-pitched, annoyed yell or in a low-pitched, annoyed growl.
His family had moved from Washington, D.C., and Charlene figured with his lofty, highbred-sounding name, this beautiful boy must be destined for great things. It seemed pretty guaranteed to her. And Charlene wanted guarantees. Her own father had died when she was nine from a diet of alcoholic beverages. Her mother then ran through a steady stream of boyfriends who always seemed to leave her pregnant. Charlene got four half-siblings this way until the boyfriend named Marty beat her mother senseless and left her blind in her right eye. Her mother spent the rest of her days dutifully walking the three blocks to the bus stop and riding two buses to the local Safeway where she clerked. Sometimes she took extra shifts to make more money and Charlene fumed over her own added duties as housemother to a bunch of kids she couldn’t stand. She urged her mother to get disability for her blindness, to go on food stamps, to apply for Aid for Single Mothers, but she refused.
“Naw, naw, can’t do that,” her mother said, nodding her head vigorously back and forth, her brown, stringy hair nearly covering her face.
“Jesus, why not?” Charlene asked.
“Goddamn you, girl,” she snapped back, menacingly raising the bushy, never-tweezed eyebrow above her smokey-blue blind eye, “don’t you swear at me. I ain’t no trash poor, Charlene. Only lazy asses get depending on government handouts. I see how the cashiers and the folks in line look at those with food stamps and all. I ain’t that. I ain’t going to be one of those.”
Goddamn it, John, I thought we were in a groove, Charlene protested in her defense. Our own groove. Civil, cordial, contentious: an old couple settled into a marriage. The way it should be, she thought. If he’d wanted more, he should’ve asked for it. He should’ve told me! Six kids and ten years of lovemaking to create them, didn’t that amount to something? So you start to growl and snap instead of kiss and fondle; that was normal for Christ’s sake. That was to be expected. That’s what everyone else did! Except for that damn Penny and Jake from across the street, teetering into their eighties and still looking at each other with smitten hearts, holding hands, holding eye contact. They still laughed and had things to say. They hadn’t run out of words for each other. Charlene wanted to snarl every time she saw them. They were showing off, shoving their love into people’s faces, saying, see, we got the real deal, and you all just got second rate. Charlene could hardly allow herself to recognize that’s exactly why she cringed.
She knew she’d claimed a pearl, what she thought was a pearl in John, and soldered on their wedding rings out of want not love. In the back of her mind, at the edge of her gut, tiptoeing away from her heart, she chose to call her young sexual desires love, thinking, I will fall in love with this man. I will. And he’ll love me too.
They had stepped off the cliff hand in hand, exchanging vows, laughing as his slight body strained to carry her voluptuous curves over the threshold of their first dumpy apartment. A brood of six in a decade split their held hands and they free fell on their own, smashing into the bottom of the quarry, miles apart.
Copyright © 2012 by Kat Ward
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